Dave Grohl: Interview

By Stephen Jones/ Music Week   5/05/11

Twenty years ago this week Nirvana went into the studio with producer Butch Vig to record Nevermind. This year Vig and Dave Grohl reunited for Foo Fighters’ seventh album Wasting Light which has been the only record to usurp Adele’s 13-week run at the number one spot in the UK and the band’s first to top the Billboard charts in the US.

Stephen Jones talks with Grohl about the making of the record, the music business and staying at the cutting edge of the alternative rock scene.

MW: When you first started Foo Fighters after the death of Kurt Cobain in 1994 did you envisage or hope the band would still be going strong and be one of the biggest bands in the world 17 years later?

DG: When I recorded the first album I didn’t think I was making an album, I was just recording some studio demos in the studio down my street for fun. After Nirvana had ended I wasn’t sure what I was going to do musically or with my life, everything just kind of stopped. I disappeared and hid away from everyone for pretty much all of 1994. Then finally I realised the only thing that was going to get me through it was to start playing music again but I didn’t necessarily want to go and join another band as a drummer and I didn’t want to feel like my musical life was over, so I went down the street and recorded these songs for fun.

I didn’t know why I was doing it, I didn’t have any reason. After doing it I started thinking maybe I will start my own label and make this a vinyl-only release and I will call it Foo Fighters so that people think it’s a band and I won’t put my name on it and just to see what happens and it all kind of came together.

The foundation of this band is really like a happy accident. We never really had a lot of career ambition. It wasn’t until we started playing as a band and we realised how much we enjoyed that we really started working hard. But I never, ever, thought we would make it this far… never thought.

MW: You have performed with more than 30 bands in your career, most recently with Them Crooked Vultures. How does being in these other bands compare to and influence you in the Foo Fighters?

DG: I have really only been in a few bands. I have jammed with a lot of people and put drums on a few records.

Every band is different. It’s like choosing children, you can’t really compare any of them. I don’t compare the Foo Fighters to other bands I have been in, because it is just different. The Foo Fighters is more than a band to me. The Foo Fighters is a family of friends, musicians and crew who have been together 16/17 years and when I go out and play with someone like John Paul Jones I am in awe of him as a musical presence. And I feel blessed that I have the opportunity to jam with one of my heroes.

But there’s always the Foo Fighters in the back of my mind, and in my heart, I can’t ever let the Foo Fighters go. I can’t not be in this band…

Honestly, the greatest influence that the Vultures had on me was the art of simplification. Because the Vultures were not about simplification, you know? (laughs) The Vultures was like dropping bombs on people. As drummer that was without a doubt the most fantastic time I have ever had on stage. Being in a rhythm section with John Paul Jones is like an episode of Fantasy Island – it is just too good to be true. It was so good every night. And I love John Paul Jones so much. He is just a hero.

But one of the good things about being a musician in more than one band and a musician who can play more than one instrument is that you can do the opposite of something else. And to me, after the Vultures trip, I knew I wanted to rock, because that’s just what I do. But I really wanted to make a very simple concise record with 10 or 11 songs that were all around four and a half minutes and once you heard them you couldn’t get out of your head. Not a brainy, cerebral record that’s still a difficult listen the tenth time around. I wanted something that was really just fucking meat and potatoes that makes people dance, you know?

So I mean whenever I go to do a side-project it usually re-energises me to come back and do this, whether it’s doing Vultures or jamming with Paul McCartney or playing with Killing Joke or whatever, it always makes me want to come back to the Foo Fighters.

MW: How have you managed to remain at the cutting edge of rock, when many of those who have maintained careers lasting more than a decade have arguably lost their edge?

DG: Well we’ve never been too concerned with much outside of our perfect little world. We are on our own label Roswell Records. And we do these licensing and distribution deals with Sony (used to be Capitol). We have our own studio, we write our own songs, we make our own videos – we are a pretty in-house organisation. When we close the door and go in and make a record we don’t really think about what’s going on outside of the studio.

When a record comes out and it sounds like the Foo Fighters, it sounds like the Foo Fighters because we shut the door behind us when we went in to record. Fortunately we have worked with people over the years who know to leave us alone and let us do our own thing so… over the years we have seen some pretty entertaining genres come and go … skinny ties, nu metal and rap metal… and we just seem to kinda stroll through it all unknowingly.

We have never been so bravado that we consider ourselves ‘The Best Band In The World’. When we make a new record we go in to make a new record like it’s the first one we have ever made. Or like it’s the last one we’ll ever make. We’ve never felt like we really fit in too much you know? We just never have. And I think that’s one of the good things about us.

MW: I saw you play at the 400-capacity Dingwalls in Camden last month when you delivered a two and a half hour set, including the whole of the new album in its entirety without uttering a word between songs. Why, when you are performing sell out shows at stadiums worldwide, are these intimate shows important to you?

DG: We enjoy playing (laughs) so I’m not itching to get off stage when we are performing in front of people. I like being there. I like to stay there. We did a gig in Sydney the other night and played over three hours. At this point in our career we have so many songs it’s hard to pick which ones not to play. Also we have been playing the new album in its entirety to prepare ourselves for the next year and a half. We really want to perform it like it is on the record. So we just barrel through. Once we are done it’s about 43-45 minutes later which is great.

It’s funny, this album is the type of album you can do that with. We’ve made other records before that wouldn’t necessarily make sense to go on stage and play front to back, with fucking mandolins and string sections all over the place you know, but with this one being a really simple, energetic rock record it makes it really easy to do that.

Originally we were doing club gigs in Los Angeles to warm up for the Wembley gig. It used to be that we’d make a record and go out on the promo trip and play clubs then the record would come out and we’d play theatres and then after a while we would play festivals and then we’d play arenas and then we’d go home, but nowadays we just go straight to the fucking arenas and you need to get your shit together for that and the best place to warm up for a gig like that is a small sweaty club.

We have our studio in Los Angeles which is a beautiful state-of-the-art 18,000 square foot warehouse facility – it’s awesome – and it’s got this massive orchestra sized drum room, but when we rehearse it’s in a room the size of an airport bathroom. We don’t go into the big room we squeeze into this tiny space and jam in there. It feels good in a tight little space.

When we were warming up our bass player Nate (Mendel) said, “Why don’t we just play the whole new record and we all looked at each other and I said, “I dunno, can we do that?” A couple of days later we were meeting with our management and said, “We want to play the whole new record.” They said, “Wait! Aren’t you afraid of people bringing in camera phones and recording devices?” and we said, “No – because it sounds good!” So I can’t imagine it would do harm. I’d assume it would make people more excited.

So now when we play the gigs the whole front row is singing the words to pretty much every song. It’s exactly how it was when I was a hardcore punk rock kid growing up outside of DC we had loads of bands demos tapes and their new recordings before they even came out and then we’d go to the show and we’d sing as loud as we could to every song and that to me seems like that’s what it is all about.

Sharing music with people is important. I think that there is too much emphasis on how to keep people from getting the music. No one’s really thinking about the fucking music, you know? They are thinking about technology or money, not thinking about the music. Without the music, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now, none of that would matter. I gauge our success by what I see when I am standing on the stage. I can’t really understand charts, I don’t really understand publishing, royalties and radio play, but I can understand which songs our audience appreciates by 80,000 people singing the chorus back to me. The people are the best way to judge or gauge what is going on.

MW: How has your approach to songwriting developed over the years? When you started out you talked about attacking the guitar the same way you attacked drum parts.

DG: I still do! I didn’t take lessons to learn how to play guitar. I have a chord book and figured out to read the simple chord charts and I had The Beatles’ Anthology and put on those greatest hits records and played along all day long. That’s kinda where I learned how to play guitar but that’s also where I learned to understand basic composition: verse, chorus, verse, arrangement. I started playing guitar when I was about 10 and I started the drums when I was maybe about 13/14; even with the drums I just learned how to play on a bed – I didn’t have a drum set I just had pillows – and would listen to records and play along. I don’t play conventional chords, sometimes I’ll write riffs,… (sighs) I won’t look at the fret board as a scale… it’s hard for me to even talk about because I just don’t even know how to explain it.

I am not a technical person at all. When I play guitar a lot of the music I write, I’ll use the little E string as if it is a kick drum and the A and the B strings as if they’re the snare and then when a chorus comes around I’ll ring out the high strings like they are cymbals and let them wash all over everything… it’s just a sense of dynamic.

Everlong is a good example, that’s a kick/snare relationship pattern. To me the most important thing is melody. More than anything, melody and a good lyric. You have to be able to surprise yourself. When I was young I listened to really difficult music, I listened to fucking crazy prog and I listened to really crazy industrial music, everything from This Mortal Coil… listened to incredibly fast hardcore and death metal. But over time to me the challenge became less about distortion and diffidence and more about simplicity and melody and honestly, the hardest part to me is just finding a melody that’s so simple that it seems familiar and a lyric that is so universal everyone can connect to it. That’s basically it. Everything else – rhythm and tempo and dynamic – is one thing, but vibe and melody is another.

MW: You have reunited with Butch Vig on this record. Many with your knowledge and experience would by now be producing their own records but you clearly continue to value what a producer brings to the recording process?

DG: Yes, absolutely. For me personally, it’s mainly insecurity. I second guess everything I do. I go into every album with like 45 song ideas and I look at my band and go, ‘I dunno, what do you think?’ And then they help me rein it in.

To me the producers we have worked with have been very helpful in their own ways. Gil Norton was the first person I ever worked with that made a rock record feel like boot camp – he just wanted the thing to be as tight and powerful as possible.

The producer Adam Kasper was exactly the opposite of that; he would just make you feel comfortable and not really make any strong song suggestion or arrangement suggestion but, if you needed it, he would give you his two cents, but ultimately he would just make you feel comfortable.

And Butch is the best of all of that. Butch has a very specific ear and he and I have a lot in common when it comes to songwriting. I love music and melody that is really simple but I have a tendency to overcomplicate things sometimes for the sake of musicality you know? There is something about how you want to retain your integrity in songwriting and a lot of times that gets blurred into this exercise in musicianship where that’s just too simple, it can’t just be 4-4-4-4-4 all the time, and you start to talk yourself into getting tricky for the sake of impressing your musician friends you know? Butch really kept me from doing that. We both love pop music. I love Motown, I love Abba, I love fucking disco, I love radio but I also love Motorhead and I love AC/DC and I love Black Flag.

He and I are both the same. He just wants a good lyric and a melody you can’t get out of your head and the guitars to be huge and the drums to be fat and massive. We’ve never walked into the studio with a puffed up chest thinking “OK we are here to make a brilliant record because we are the Foo Fighters. It doesn’t really work that way. We kind of start from the ground up, like we are a brand new band every time.

MW: You mentioned you have your own studio, so why decide to set another one up in your garage at home and record this new album onto tape using analogue equipment instead of Pro Tools?

DG: We have our studio down the road from my house where we made the last two records and I just didn’t want to do the same thing again.

One of the things that has kept us going so long is that we don’t really like to feel too comfortable and there should be a little bit of challenge in everything we could do. I have this demo studio in an office above my garage which is maybe like a 10×18 ft. room or something, not very big. And I’ve wired my house with input panels so that I can put drums in the garage if I want to do demos which I have done the last two or three records. It’s a good sounding garage – it’s not massive: it can fit a minivan in it and a couple of kids’ bikes and a refrigerator. People are like “You must have a fucking Learjet in it”, but no I pulled the minivan out and said, “Honey, this has to sit in the rain for the next three months” and put the drums in there.

But recording in a comfortable environment with simple equipment only makes for a really enjoyable experience. Once we realised we were doing it with Butch I was like, “Let’s do it to tape with Butch.”

I remember recording Nevermind with Butch and he’s perfectly capable of doing it as anyone who has been around for more than 10 years is. I wanted to record on tape because I don’t like what Pro Tools is doing to rock bands to be honest. Let me take that back. I don’t like what producers are doing with Pro Tools when recording rock bands. It breaks my fucking heart. Every band sounds the fucking same. Every drummer sounds the same. Every vocalist is tuned so they sound pitch perfect and there’s no loose vibe, there’s just no fucking vibe any more. For dance and pop music I totally understand – I get it! But honestly, Jesus fucking Christ, when I am at home every morning I wake up and I put on a disco channel and hang out with my kids before they have to go to school and we basically just play and dance and have breakfast and I listen to the human feel that’s even on those old disco records, it’s imperfect you know? And it feels good, it makes you want to dance.

A turn signal on a car doesn’t necessarily make me want to get funky if you know what I mean? So that’s what I start hearing when I hear an album that’s been slammed into Pro Tools and shifted around so that it sounds mechanical. Especially for rock and roll. When you are a band like us… we’re not the best band in the world, but fuck, we can be pretty good on a good day – and that’s what I want to sound like. I want to sound like us. So knowing that Butch was partial to computers – fuck he’s from Garbage – he’s been using them for the last 15 years, I was just worried if we were to get in front of a computer with this rock band we wouldn’t get the biggest album we can get.

We need to have an album which is big and raw and loud. Fuck the sonic advantages of tape. Everybody knows about that. But just the human element, where you perform to the best of your ability and that’s as good as you get, you don’t get any fucking help from a computer.

I brought Butch over to the house and I said I want to make the record in my garage and we walked round and he clapped or whatever studio people do and he said (impersonates voice) “Hey it sounds pretty good in here.” And then I said, “Also, I want to do it to tape.” And he said, “Wow, OK I haven’t done that in a while.” And I said, “That’s cool, I know you can do it.”

He said he would have to get his razor blade out for an edit and I said, “That’s cool, I’ve seen you do it before” and he said, “If we get into any real trouble we can always just throw it onto Pro Tools” and I said, “Butch – no fucking computers. If I see one computer in this house you are fired, you can’t work on this record if I see a computer.” And I fought for it, like yelling and screaming with veins bulging out of my fucking neck, to more than one person saying, “Look, if you don’t want to fucking make this record to tape, get out of my garage.” And it worked, you know?

MW: You filmed the making of this record for a documentary Back And Forth, what was the rational thinking behind that?

DG: About year and a half ago I started thinking it was time to make a documentary just for the hardcore fans, not a big feature release, let’s get the band together, round up all this footage that the fans have never seen, just tell the story.

And then I thought it would be interesting to film the making of the new record, as a separate documentary, since we were doing it in a garage with Butch to tape, as there is a craft to that that a lot of kids just don’t understand. I started using Twitter and took a picture of one of the tape machines and put it on Twitter and looked to see the comments and one of the comments, a kid said, “What the fuck is that?” and another said, “Oh, that’s how they used to make records!” and it freaked me out, so I really thought okay it would be cool if we filmed the making of the record too just so that people could see how it works and how simple it is and how real it is and how pure and human and perfectly okay it is to not sound like a robot.

Then I really started thinking about those two things together that… Butch and I, it’s been 20 years. It’s an interesting story that we met 20 years ago, we went into a dirty studio in the San Fernando Valley, there were no expectations – the label didn’t think we were going to make Nevermind. The label didn’t even come to the fucking studio when we were there. Not once did I see an A&R person or anyone, so there was no expectation. We had a short bit of time. We had a little bit of money. Then that album changed our albums dramatically in a profound way forever. And our life directions changed. And then losing Kurt. And Butch and I starting these new careers with Foos and Garbage and how we have survived this last 20 years how we have managed to stay here and why the fuck we would make the record in a garage at this point? To me the most important thing about the movie is when it goes from Wembley Stadium to me cleaning out my garage. If I go to someone and say, “Yeah, we made our record in my garage with a tape machine,” and they say, “What? Are you broke? Why the fuck would you do that?” But had you seen or heard the story of the last 17 years and where we started and what kind of people we are, I think you would probably understand, you know?

MW: There’s a scene in the film where you are reunited on stage for the first time since the Nineties with your former surviving Nirvana band mates Pat Smear and Krist Novoselic, how was that?

DG: It was… really… great (laughs). We did a small club gig the day we finished making the record. We mixed the record in my garage too. We had Alan Moulder mix the record but we went to this really beautiful state of the art studio in Hollywood with this awesome million dollar SSL board and after three or mixes I said to Alan – who is a fucking genius – “This doesn’t sound like my garage” – and he said, “If you want it to sound like your garage, let’s go and mix it in your garage” so we went back to the garage.

On the last mix we finished it, we cracked a couple of beers, walked down my driveway got in my car and they drove me right to the stage and I got on stage and Krist was in town and we got up and played the song Marigold which was a B-side to Heart-Shaped Box, the only Nirvana song I ever sung.

But the craziest thing was that afternoon we decided to rehearse so Krist and Pat and I went to our Studio 606. We get there and nobody is there except for the guy Scott who works at the front desk. And we run through the song a couple of times and we think “OK that’s cool.” And then Krist says, “You guys want to play some mouldy oldies?” And we kinda looked at each other and thought, “Um,… okay, like what?” And Krist goes, “Let’s do Teen Spirit.” Then Pat started into (Smells Like) Teen Spirit and there was no-one in the room, it was just the three of us. And at one point the door opened and Scott poked his head in and watched and went back to his office and we ended the song and just thought, “OK, let’s go.” And as we were walking out Scott said, “Hey you guys, that one’s pretty good, you might wanna keep that!” (giggles)

MW: The music business has changed markedly and dramatically in the last 20 years, what do you think of its current state?

DG: I don’t really know. Honestly I have never been a businessman. Like, I do what I do to manage and maintain what we have as Foo Fighters. There is a lot about the industry I don’t understand. Mostly I think it is important to listen to the kids. How on earth could an executive who is getting paid $20m a year, whose office is on the 60th floor of a skyscraper, how is he going to understand what a 12-year-old kid whose father beats the shit out of him at the weekend, how are they going to understand that kid’s needs or wants? You have to let the audience decide some of this, you have to let the people guide you. You don’t want to control the audience. You don’t want to sequester them and give them less, you want to give them more. I don’t know what side I am on with any of the digital debate, but I do know people want music, and if you give it to them they will stay with you forever. I think it’s difficult of course when there is money involved, it is not an easy problem to solve. You have to respect your audience for sure.

MW: You have been critical of TV executives automatically believing every band should want to do Glee and there was the furore over Kurt’s representation in Guitar Hero. Do you feel modern day commercial pressures challenge who you are as an artist?

DG: I’m not one to judge other people’s careers. I don’t understand… there’s no way I could understand someone else’s career decision because I only understand mine.

For me the most important thing is that you do things with a clear conscience and do it for the right reason. We have done some things before which would be considered corporate and with those things we try to do right by them. If we do corporate gig we usually put the money towards keeping the crew on retainer or production or something like that. As long as music is the most important thing to you.

I mean what people have to understand is that as much as music is a business, it’s also a very simple human practice, and you should never feel forced to have to have to sell your shit out for money. You don’t have to. You don’t have to do it. I mean when I was a kid, playing hardcore punk rock, music wasn’t a career option, I worked in a fucking furniture warehouse and I fucking did masonry and made stone portraits for people – that was my only career option. I am a high school dropout.

I think that when money gets involved things can get really confusing and weird and something like the television show Glee… I get Glee. I understand it. It’s not my thing but I get it. I just don’t think that bands should feel like they have to do something like that to exist, in order to have a career. Music should be its own reward.

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